Your Ultimate Northeast Winter Vacation

••• Christian Aslund/Getty Images

The Northeast's snow-capped peaks might not rival those out West in stature, but the dramatic diversity of the region's terrain and the eclectic options for outdoor exhilaration make this a winter sports lover's vacation playground. Within easy reach of major cities like New York, Philadelphia and Boston, you'll find not only ski and snowboarding destinations, but opportunities to get outdoors and hike, snowshoe or cross-country ski through pristine woodlands; to snowmobile; to ice skate or snow tube… maybe even to try ice fishing or dog sledding.

Whether you're a black-diamond warrior or a couch-by-the-fire conqueror, the Northeast is your place for picture-perfect winter experiences. Those snow-sprinkled scenes you've seen in your mind? They're all here. Ski or toboggan with an ocean view in Maine (really!). Wander through a real ice castle in New Hampshire. Show off your snowboarding tricks in Vermont. Treat your family to a snow tubing outing in Massachusetts. Challenge yourself on slopes where Olympians chased glory in New York. Glide through Pennsylvania state parks on nordic skis.

Then, return to just the right hotel or inn, tucked within this winter wonderland, and dream of your next day's adventures.

When to Go

Mother Nature is famously moody when it comes to the Northeast's seasonal weather shifts, but by Thanksgiving, you can count on finding skiable terrain at some of the major ski resorts in the Northeast, where snowmaking gets underway as soon as nighttime temperatures drop below freezing. Vermont's Killington is typically first in the East to open for the season. It's even been first in the nation. Sunday River in northern Maine opens reliably early, too. Whiteface Mountain in New York is another best bet for early-season skiing and snowboarding.

The busiest times on the slopes aren't necessarily linked to optimal conditions. They coincide with school vacations including the week between Christmas and New Year's Day, the Martin Luther King Jr. Day long weekend in January and the winter break week that coincides with the Presidents' Day holiday in February. If you're averse to lift lines and high prices, you'll want to plan your winter vacation for other times. Midweek is always when you'll find the best deals on lodging and lift tickets.

Most years, a deep base of snow guarantees good downhilling conditions in the Northeast through late March. One of the beauties of this region is how compact and blessed with ski areas it is. Don't love the conditions at the mountain you're on? Head to another nearby ski resort the next day.

Winter fans cheer when natural snow keeps falling through March, extending the season throughout the month and sometimes even into April. Spring skiing is affordable and ideal for those who typically want to hide inside when it's bitterly cold.

The Northeast ski season concludes at many resorts with a madcap tradition: pond skimming. More fun to watch than to engage in, the costumed participants make quite a splash, as they schuss downhill into an awaiting pool of cold water. Dates are announced as the season's end nears for pond skimming events at many resorts including Killington in Vermont, New Hampshire's Cannon Mountain and Blue Mountain Resort in Pennsylvania's Poconos.

What about snow and cold conditions for other winter outdoor activities? Sure, they are less predictable, but Northeasterners are not easily thwarted. You'll find several cross-country ski areas in the region, like the Grafton Trails & Outdoor Center in Vermont, where snowmaking ensures you won't waste a trip. And if you have an urge to ski, say, in a Hawaiian shirt in July? That's possible, too, now that Connecticut's Powder Ridge Mountain Park & Resort has the Northeast's only 365 Synthetic Snow Park, open to skiers, snowboarders and snow tubers year-round.

The Northeast's Top Ski Resorts

So, how will you choose your winter-fun destination? It's not all about vertical drop. Sometimes, you want the ultimate ski town vibe. For some vacationers, hitting the slopes on the cheap is what matters most. Or maybe you're looking for a family-friendly ski area, where you can introduce kids to the sport.

Even tiny Rhode Island has one ski area, but if you're really looking to maximize your winter vacation time, here are 12 Northeast ski destinations to consider, from north to south:

  • Sunday River in Newry, Maine, sprawls across eight majestic peaks and offers trails for all levels, the ski town amenities you expect, and colorful events like the annual Santa Sunday.
  • Sugarloaf in Carrabassett Valley is Maine's largest ski area with its largest vertical drop. You'll be among serious skiers here and love all the natural snowfall.
  • Stowe in Vermont is as picturesque a ski spot as you'll find in the Northeast, and with Vail Resorts newly operating the mountain resort—the company's first property in the East—you can expect good things.
  • Whiteface Mountain in Lake Placid, New York, is where Olympic dreams came true. One-third of the peak's trails are for expert skiers only. Don't worry, there's plenty of fun for everyone including your chance to try bobsledding.
  • Tuckerman Ravine is a destination for daredevils. High in New Hampshire's White Mountains, it's the extreme skiing capital of the Northeast and an option to consider for spring ski trips.
  • Bretton Woods is a storied resort in the heart of the White Mountains. New Hampshire's largest ski area is a destination not only for downhill runs but for glade skiing, cross-country skiing, dogsledding and even winter ziplining.
  • Loon Mountain in Lincoln, New Hampshire, is an ideal White Mountains winter destination for families. There are plenty of alternatives nearby and on-site for family members who don't ski.
  • Killington in Vermont, nicknamed “The Beast of the East,” is a snowboarder's paradise in addition to owning the distinction of having more ski trails than any other New England ski resort.
  • Jiminy Peak in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts is southern New England's leading destination for skiing and snowboarding. Don't ski? Ride New England's original mountain coaster.
  • Wachusett Mountain in Princeton, Massachusetts, is one of the closest ski areas to Boston and even accessible via train if you don't have a car.
  • Hunter Mountain in Hunter, New York, is the Catskills' enduring winter fun spot and the nearest big mountain to New York City. With 100% snowmaking, you can be sure the slopes are always ready for your arrival.
  • Blue Mountain Resort, located just under two hours north of Philadelphia in Palmerton, Pennsylvania, is the Pocono Mountains' best choice for family ski trips.

    Getting There and Around

    The Northeast is served by so many airports in both New York State and New England, you'll want to compare schedules and airfares for more than one to find the best deal for your winter trip. Once you land, it is difficult to reach the region's ski country destinations without renting a car. Splurge and upgrade to an SUV: You'll be glad you did if a winter storm kicks up.

    Vermont is your best option if train travel is your preferred mode of transportation. Amtrak's Vermonter and the Ethan Allen Express routes can get you close to the winter sports action.

    If you're driving your own car, be sure it's stocked with winter essentials: an ice scraper, snow brush, warm blanket, hand warmers, windshield washer fluid, snacks and water, a flashlight, matches, a small shovel. If you don't belong to AAA or another auto club, consider downloading the Honk app on your phone in case you need to summon roadside assistance. Map websites and apps will help you plot the best route to your winter resort.